Late last month, thousands of anxious candidates from around the world learned whether they passed the July 2019 New York Bar Exam. Now that this step of the process is behind them, a more significant hurdle stands between them and admission to the New York bar: the character and fitness process. The stated mission of the Character and Fitness Committees in the four Appellate Division Departments is to determine whether the applicant possesses the “character and general fitness requisite for an attorney and counsellor-at-law.” See N.Y. Jud. L. §90(1)(a); see also 22 N.Y.C.R.R. §520.12(a). For many candidates, the process will be fairly straightforward. Other candidates, however, may encounter a variety of complications, possibly owing to an unfortunate incident in their past or difficulty obtaining the required documentation to submit to the Committee. This article discusses a few key pointers that may help candidates navigate this stressful, and sometimes confusing, process.
(1) Read the rules and plan ahead. Unlike other states, New York maintains four independent Committees that assess a potential lawyer’s character and fitness—one Committee for each of the four Appellate Division departments. This is important for two reasons. First, candidates must make sure they are filing their application in the right judicial department—namely the department where the New York Board of Law Examiners has certified the candidate. While this may seem obvious, we have regularly seen candidates’ applications delayed because they filed in the wrong department (especially candidates who filed their application from outside New York but subsequently moved to the state). Second, the rules in the four departments are slightly different. For instance, in the First and Second Departments, candidates are not allowed to submit their application materials until: (1) they have been certified to that Appellate Division’s Character and Fitness Committee and (2) they have been notified that they passed the bar. By contrast, in the Third and Fourth Departments, candidates are encouraged to submit their materials early and need not wait for their bar results. The Committees also have slightly different processes for conducting character and fitness interviews and hearings. Candidates would be wise to consult the rules for the respective committees, which can be found on the Appellate Division Department websites. Failure to follow these rules could delay the candidate’s application.
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